How America's 40 Largest Cities Elect Their Council Members

All politics is local because every city is different; when you ask "How do America's 40 largest cities elect their council members?" you get 40 different answers. This chart describes some key differences.


Government System

M: Under the Strong Mayor system in place in 26 of the cities, the mayor and council are separate, equal, and often combative branches of government (à la the President and Congress).

C: Council-manager systems (what Austin has) feature a council that includes the mayor and a hired-gun chief executive.

P: Under a commission system (found only in Portland), each council member actually runs city departments.


Election System

SM: Single-member districts should be self-explanatory; all but five of the cities elect all or most of their council members in this way. There are two flavors of at-large elections:

Place: In Place systems, like we have, candidates run for specific seats.

Prop.: In Proportional Representation ("prop-rep") systems, all the candidates run as a herd and citizens get to vote for more than one.

MM: The two cities with multi-member districts elect the reps from them via prop-rep. Many cities, as you can see, have systems that mix single-member and at-large.


# of Seats

This includes the mayors of council-manager cities. Most strong-mayor cities have a council president (or speaker), who is sometimes elected directly (indicated on the chart as "+1") and otherwise chosen by the council.

D, AL: In mixed systems, some members are elected from districts, some at large.


Terms

Note that Austin is the only city with 3-year terms.

Ü: In a staggered system, for instance, here in Austin, the city doesn't elect all the council members in the same year.


Term Limits

About half the cities have term limits.

* In four of them, limits apply to the mayor only.


Election Dates

Most every city has two election dates ñ either a primary and general election, in cities with partisan races, or a general and runoff election, as we do. Sometimes, both are in the same month, which is why some cities only have one month listed. -- M.C.M.

Rank

City

Pop. (1996)

Gov.

Elections

# seats

Term

limit

Elect. cycle

Elect. dates

Notes

1

New York, NY

7,380,906

M

SM

51

4 yrs

2*

Next 2001

Sep/Nov

Partisan; also 5 elected borough presidents

2

Los Angeles, CA

3,553,638

M

SM

15

4 yrs†

2

Odd years

Apr/Jun

Attempt to expand council defeated in June; unified local elections

3

Chicago, IL

2,721,547

M

SM

50

4 yrs

-

Next 2003

Feb/Apr

4

Houston, TX

1,744,058

M

SM+Place

14 (9 D, 5 AL)

2 yrs

2

Odd years

Nov/Dec

Will add 2 districts when population goes above 2.1 million

5

Philadelphia, PA

1,478,002

M

SM+Prop.

17 (10 D, 7 AL)

4 yrs

2*

Next 1999

May/Nov

Partisan; voters get 5 at-large votes, top 7 vote-getters are elected

6

San Diego, CA

1,171,121

C

SM

9

4 yrs†

2

Even years

Mar/Nov

Unified with state/ federal elections

7

Phoenix, AZ

1,159,014

C

SM

9

4 yrs†

-

Odd years

Sep

8

San Antonio, TX

1,067,816

C

SM

11

2 yrs

2

Odd years

May

9

Dallas, TX

1,053,292

C

SM

15

2 yrs

8 yrs

Odd years

May

Mayor serves 4-year term

10

Detroit, MI

1,000,272

M

Prop.

9

4 yrs

-

Next 2001

Sep/Nov

Top vote-getter becomes City Council president

11

San Jose, CA

838,744

C

SM

11

4 yrs†

2

Even years

Mar/Nov

Unified with state/ federal elections

12

Indianapolis, IN

746,737

M

SM+Prop.

29 (25 D, 4 AL)

4 yrs

-

Next 1999

May/Nov

Partisan

13

San Francisco, CA

735,315

M

SM *

11

4 yrs†

2

Next 2000

Nov/Dec

System effective 2000; unified with state/ federal elections

14

Jacksonville, FL

679,792

M

SM+Place

19 (14 D, 5 AL)

4 yrs

2

Next 2003

Apr/May

Partisan; term limits effective 1999

15

Baltimore, MD

675,401

M

MM

19 (6 D x 3+1)

4 yrs

-

Next 1999

Sep/Nov

Partisan; 3 members elected (prop.) from each of 6 districts; Council president elected at large

16

Columbus, OH

657,053

M

Prop.

7

4 yrs†

-

Odd years

May/Nov

17

El Paso, TX

599,865

C

SM

9

2 yrs

4

Odd years

May

Went from 6 to 8 districts (+ mayor) in 1993

18

Memphis, TN

596,725

M

SM+MM

13 (7 D+2x3)

4 yrs

-

Next 1999

Oct/Nov

Two superdistricts (each covering half the city) elect (prop.) 3 members each

19

Milwaukee, WI

590,503

M

SM

17

4 yrs

-

Next 2000

April

20

Boston, MA

558,394

M

SM+Prop.

13 (9 D, 4 AL)

2 yrs

-

Odd years

Nov

Partisan; mayor serves 4-year term

21

Washington, DC

543,213

M

SM+Prop.*

13 (8 D, 4 AL+1)

4 yrs†

-

Even years

Sep/Nov

Partisan; at-large councilors must be from (at least two) different parties; Council president elected at large; unified w/federal elections

22

Austin, TX

541,278

C

Place

7

3 yrs†

2

Next 2000

May

23

Seattle, WA

524,704

M

Prop.

9

4 yrs†

-

Odd years

Mar

24

Nashville, TN

511,263

M

SM+Prop.

41 (35 D, 5 AL+1)

4 yrs

3*

Next 1999

Aug/Sep

Vice-mayor (council president) elected at large

25

Cleveland, OH

498,246

M

SM

21

4 yrs

-

Next 2001

Sep/Nov

Partisan; downsized council from 35 members in 1982; unified local elections

26

Denver, CO

497,840

M

SM+Prop.

13 (11 D, 2 AL)

4 yrs

-

Next 2003

May/Jun

27

Portland, OR

480,824

P

Place

5

4 yrs†

-

Even years

May/Nov

Term-limit initiative planned for 2000 ballot; unified with state/ federal elections

28

Fort Worth, TX

479,716

C

SM

9

2 yrs

-

Odd years

May

Mayor is District 1

29

New Orleans, LA

476,625

M

SM+Prop.

7 (5 D, 2 AL)

4 yrs

2

Next 2002

Mar/Apr

Partisan; council president must be at-large member

30

Oklahoma City, OK

469,852

C

SM

9

4 yrs

-

2002

Apr/May

31

Tuscon, AZ

449,002

C

SM+Place

7 (7D)

4 yrs†

-

Odd years

Sep/Nov

Partisan; council members nominated by districts, elected at large

32

Charlotte, NC

441,297

C

SM+Prop.

11 (7 D, 4 AL)

2 yrs

-

Odd years

Sep/Nov

Partisan

33

Kansas City, MO

441,259

C

SM+Place

12 (6 D, 6 AL)

4 yrs

2

Next 2003

Mar/Apr

Each district has one member elected by the district and one elected at-large

34

Virginia Beach, VA

430,385

C

SM+Place

11 (7 D, 4 AL)

4 yrs†

-

Even years

May

Current system effective 1998

35

Honolulu, HI

423,475

M

SM

9

4 yrs

2

Next 2002

Sep/Nov

Unified with state/federal elections

36

Long Beach, CA

421,904

M

SM

9

4 yrs†

2

Even years

Apr/Jun

37

Albuquerque, NM

419,681

M

SM

9

4 yrs†

2*

Odd years

Oct

Runoff only required if no candidate gets 40 percent of vote

38

Atlanta, GA

401,907

M

SM+Place

16 (12 D, 3 AL+1)

4 yrs

-

Next 2001

Nov

At-large members represent posts (groups of 4 districts); Council president elected at large; current system effective 1996

39

Fresno, CA

396,011

M

SM

7

4 yrs†

2

Even years

Mar/Nov

Unified with state/federal elections; current system effective 1996

40

Tulsa, OK

378,491

M

SM

9

2 yrs

-

Even years

Feb/Mar

Partisan; mayor serves 4-year term

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